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The Mystara Chronicles VI: "The Master of the Dead"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
Fyodor did not know what the beast was, but when it entered the chamber the horror of it nearly took his breath away. Boldar set into it immediately, hacking away with broad strokes. Varis, once he had set Alexander down, was more cautious, and, after invoking Halav's wrath, began to strike with his mace, raining blows down upon the worm-beast as Thalaric and the dwarf kept the thing's attention up front.
Then everything started to go wrong. The beast, angered by the attacks, scurried forward with a quickness that none of the group could match, its disgusting tentacles writhing and groping, eventually wrapping around the dwarf's right forearm. At this, Boldar's resolve flickered and he pulled away, axe dropping uselessly to the ground. The great speed and force with which he recoiled from the nightmare, born of sheer terror as he looked into the beast's disgusting maw and smelt its burnt-sweet breath, was sufficient to allow him to rip free.
Unfortunately for the dwarf, his boot caught on something on the floor and he fell hard. Acting on instinct, Boldar turned this new situation to his advantage, rolling away from his unnatural assailant. The beast turned more swiftly than Boldar thought would be possible considering its length, but it was soon distracted from its pursuit, not by the stinging blows of Thalaric's elven longsword, nor the dull thuds of Varis' frantically-wielded sceptre, but by a more appealing target: the injured Alexander.
The youth, unable to stand due to the burning wound on his leg, struggled to bring his sword into some sort of useable position. But the attack came too quickly, and within a heartbeat the walking worm had buried its head in Alexander's torso, tentacles flailing in a disgusting array. The young Karameikan struggled for but a moment, and was then still.
Fyodor, until now paralysed with fright, fell upon the beast in a fury, joining the others in striking the thing with all the strength that he was able to summon. The monster tried to turn to face the assault, but it was too late, the young Traladaran's sword tearing huge swathes of destruction into its hide even as Varis, distracted by Alexander's fate, turned to his downed comrade and friend. After one particularly mighty blow from the young Traladaran, the thing stumbled, then pitched forward headfirst to the ground, dead.
Thalaric put his finger to his mouth, indicating silence. The elf took in the scene as quickly as possible. Fyodor stood, breathing heavily, face flushed with the stress of battle, looking alternately to him for guidance and to the fate of his compatriots, especially Alexander who lay unmoving on the ground. Varis had knelt beside his friend, laid down his mace and the illuminating gem, and removed his pack from his back. He rustled through it, oblivious to Thalaric's hisses. Boldar had pulled himself to a sitting position against the wall of this strange chamber. Now that the elf could get a better look at him, he could see that the dwarf's shield arm was ravaged, the chain punctured in a dozen places by the teeth of the red worms that had assaulted the group earlier. Nevertheless, he waved to Thalaric, indicating that he was in fact all right. He rose to his feet and silently picked up his wicked axe from where he had dropped it.
Although the elf's concern over the condition of Alexander was considerable, there was another matter to be considered right now: the mysterious voices that they had heard earlier. As they waited with baited breath, they could see light from a lamp begin to enter into the chamber. None dared to peek around the corner down the passage, and so Fyodor and Thalaric gripped the hilts of their swords tightly and crouched, ready to spring into action, Fyodor copying the elf's battle-stance. Boldar, casting a disparaging glance at Varis who was stroking Alexander's hair even as he pulled a long cylindrical object from his backpack, tested the strength of his shield arm.
Footsteps could now be heard, and it was clear that they belonged to more than one foeman. The sound of those steps on the earth-and-stone floor brought back the image from Aralic's tale, that dark, oppressive, demonic presence that had frightened him so. Is this it? Fyodor thought to himself. He could feel the beads of sweat trickling down the back of his neck from exertion and from fear. And the steps drew ever, ever closer.
At long last, a figure entered the room. It had barely stepped into the chamber when Fyodor, with a cry of battle, leaped to the attack, swinging his sword in a sweeping arc.
His opponent was a man.
Fyodor had just enough time to register this before his father's blade sliced through flesh, crushed bone, and stopped its forward progress just inches short of coming through the back of the mysterious man's skull. He fell to the ground with a heavy thud, dragging Fyodor's sword down with him, his lantern striking the ground and shattering, spreading a murky trail of oil that immediately caught fire.
Before the Traladaran could think another thought, two others were upon them, dressed in identical black robes, swinging heavy iron rods. "Petrides!" one shouted as he charged Thalaric. The elf took the blow from the rod on his shield, letting his attacker's momentum carry him forward as he deftly sidestepped, bringing his sword around to deliver the deathblow. His opponent was too close, however, and he succeeded only in striking him in the back of the head with the crossguard of his blade. That was sufficient to incapacitate him, and he fell hard forwards and was still.
"Aid!" Fyodor shouted. The third attacker was heading right for the young Traladaran, who was having trouble with his sword. The blade was gruesomely caught in the tissue of the first one's head, and try as he might he could not drag it out. The man with the iron rod advanced on him, hoping to take advantage of his awkward state, but when Fyodor called out, and upon seeing the elf turn those strange green eyes to stare at him and Boldar advancing with his gleaming axe, he turned and ran, robes flapping, down the corridor whence he came.
The elf, to Fyodor's great surprise, threw down his sword noisily. He then began to chant, a few quick, tongue-twistingly incomprehensible words, his slim hand moving in strange, stilted gestures. Suddenly, appearing from nowhere, a glowing arrow formed at Thalaric's side. As it did so the elf pointed emphatically at the fleeing figure, speaking one final cryptic syllable. The arrow shot forth at great speed from where it was hovering, striking the fellow full in the back. The robed figure cried out and threw his hands into the air. The iron rod that he had held in his hands hit the ground only a moment after his body did.
Fyodor looked at the elf in amazement. So the stories are true, he thought. The elves can perform magic! His grandmother's cautionary tales of the elves started to come to him then, and the thought that it was not clear to him if this magic that Thalaric wielded so surprisingly sprang from good or from ill had barely crossed his mind when he saw the elf slump forward slightly. "Are you injured?" Fyodor asked, crossing to him. Thalaric shook his head and drew a deep breath as he removed his helm. "I am fine. Dweomer-working is very exhausting for me." He cast a look towards Alexander. "But there are bigger concerns than how tired I am, I'm afraid."
Varis had withdrawn a length of parchment from somewhere and was studying it intently, holding his friend's hand. Fyodor didn't want to look, fearing that Alexander, his acquaintance of only a few days yet nevertheless a trusted and loved comrade, was dead. Boldar, in what the young Traladaran found to be an out of character yet extremely moving gesture, gripped the human's forearm tightly for a moment. The dwarf seemed tired, but otherwise aware and able to fight.
The terror that had attacked them just moments before was dead, hacked and bleeding on the floor. The fiery oil trail from the broken lamp lapped up next to the carcass; one of the beast's many legs began to burn, giving off oily smoke as it combusted. Completing the horrific scene were the unmoving forms of two men in black robes, one with his head near cleaved in two by a single stroke from Fyodor, the other either dead or unconscious, face down.
"Who are these men?" Fyodor asked in terror. He might have asked any of a dozen things at that time, but this question seemed the least likely to elicit an incomprehensible answer or point to incomprehensible phenomena, such as Thalaric creating magical arrows that leapt unerringly to their targets, or many-legged horrors with tentacles for mouths, or what had happened so tragically to Alexander. He's dead, and I can't even spare a moment to grieve, Fyodor thought with a sigh. Or even bear to look at him. He took some comfort in the fact that Varis was attending to him, reading from a scroll, murmuring some soft words. Fyodor prayed to Petra that they would be comforting to Alexander's spirit.
The room was starting to become smoky from the oil fire. Thalaric put his boot in the armpit of the man that he had struck and rolled him over. He was young, maybe a little bit older than Fyodor, with dark hair and pale skin. The robe that he wore was completely black. It seemed to be made of some kind of light material, surprisingly fine considering the strangeness of their surroundings. The man was definitely breathing, and his eyes began to flutter open.
"He's coming around," Fyodor said, crouching with Thalaric over the robed one. The elf reached down to the necklace that the man wore. The iron chain had a pendant hung upon it, but it had slipped down the chain to the floor, obscured from view by shadow. Thalaric grabbed it and slid it up the chain so that it rested on his chest.
Fyodor gasped in horror and leapt to his feet, making the sign to ward off the evil eye with his hand, frantically. "No no no no no..." he mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief, eyes wide open.
The elf looked at the pendant. It was iron, and was finely fashioned into the head of a goat, upon which were two great ram's horns. What manner of symbol is this? the elf thought. He turned to ask Fyodor, and did so just in time to see the Traladaran descend to his knees and stab the man in the chest with his dagger. The eyes of the man shot open and a scream was transformed into a horrid gurgle as Fyodor withdrew his blade and stabbed repeatedly, frantically. Thalaric backed away in utter horror at the sight, noticing that Fyodor's face was stained with tears. Finally the youth stopped and cast his dagger to the ground, the robed one dead. The worm-beast had now begun to burn in earnest, and the oily smoke that filled the room stung the eyes of the elf.
"The Master of the Dead..." Fyodor mumbled. "The Black Prince..."
* * *
Alexander watched the battle unfold in front of him, saw Varis, tears in his eyes, kneeling by his side, stroking his hair, holding his hand. He wanted to cry out to him, to tell him that he was okay, that the monstrous thing that had attacked him so suddenly had not gotten the best of him, that the wound inflicted by the gelatinous worm was not too deep, that he too was brave, and could endure pain. But it was all he could do to draw breath, the shallowest of breaths, and he could not move a muscle in his body. Alexander knew not why it was that he came to be in this state, whether he was paralysed due to fear or by some venom. The thought briefly came to him that it was because he was dead, passed beyond the pale of his former life. Only for a moment did this musing trouble him before he thrust it forcibly from his mind, too much a lover of life even to consider this possibility.
He saw the men next, the black-robed ones who came with bars of iron. The anger of his friends, once raked over the coals of fear and sorrow, proved to be too much for them. He saw the elf create a magic missile out of thin air, and direct it with an arcane shout down the corridor at a fleeing assailant. He saw and heard Varis, his old friend, praying a prayer that he never thought he would hear him pray.
"Petra, Queen of Heaven and Immortal Physician of our souls and bodies..."
Alexander thought he felt his heart start to beat faster. He watched the dwarf examining the room while Fyodor and Thalaric bent over one of the black-robes and inspected the body.
"...this one now before you, and for the sake of the prayers of your scattered children..."
Fyodor's knife descended, over and over again, tracing a trail of scarlet in the air as the life-blood of the robed man leapt in a crimson arc, rising with the smoke from the oil fire that was by now consuming the body of the walking worm. He watched in shocked horror as the Traladaran threw down his dagger and cried out.
"...comfort to your mortal people, healing to your wounded warriors..."
Over Varis' ministrations, by which Alexander knew that he hoped to invoke the healing power of the Traladaran goddess which Aralic promised would come in response to his patriarch's written invocation, one thing that Fyodor cried out in terror stuck in his ear and his soul: the Master of the Dead.
And suddenly, Alexander sat upright and took a deep breath.
* * *
It took all of Varis' concentration to recite the formula properly, without pause or stutter. For as soon as he began, the words, written in Patriarch Aleksyev's strong hand, began to disappear, vanishing as soon as he read them. Varis did not allow himself to ponder the mystery of this now- a restraint that he was quite proud of- for the sake of his friend Alexander's pitiful condition. He had plenty of time to mull over the implications of Aralic's gift on the journey back to the orc caves, but he was still happily surprised that upon the completion of his invocation of Petra Alexander moved suddenly, filling his lungs with the impure air of that place. And then, as if coming out of a trance, Varis suddenly became aware of what was going on around him: Fyodor was crying, the air was filled with smoke, and the party was surrounded by the bodies of men gruesomely killed.
His attention was focused, however, on Alexander, the recipient of Chardastes' healing grace (for he knew that it was Chardastes, the Healer, in his mercy who had manifested his power). The wound on the Karameikan's leg still bled, and the tentacled horror that had assaulted him had left large red welts on his hands and arms, but the death-like paralysis that had gripped him had departed. Alexander smiled broadly and cuffed him softly on the cheek.
Suddenly Varis began to remember, as one remembers dreams upon waking in the morning, little snippets of conversation, shouts, images. There were men down here, cultists of some dark god, who had overseen their attack by the great walking worm (and perhaps by the other gelatinous ones as well). Varis looked to Fyodor. Thalaric had gripped him by the arms and was looking up at him, trying to convey something in low, earnest tones. The horrific worm-beast was crackling with flame, and the heat, stench, and smothering smoke that issued forth from it was becoming too much to bear.
"We have to leave now," Thalaric said, louder now, to the group, sword and shield in hand once more. Fyodor bent over and swiftly, as if he were embarrassed, picked up his dagger and sheathed it, not stopping to clean the gore from the utilitarian blade. The philosopher was preparing to roll the scroll up and put it back in his pack when he suddenly stopped and looked at it quizzically. Then, with a ray of understanding dawning across his face, Varis nodded to himself, smiled slightly, and rolled the parchment back into a tight cylinder and returned it to its case.
Holding their hands over their faces, the group hastened out of the room, through the smoke and down the corridor, back the way that they had come. As they passed the body of the third black-robed man, dead by Thalaric's mystical powers, they looked at it with amazement and interest. Time did not permit a closer investigation, nor prudence an interrogation of the elf, so they passed the body by in a silence that belied their universal curiosity.
As they exited the corridor into the large chamber that they had first descended to, the light from Aralic's gem soon illuminated the dead forms of the two red worms that they had killed, those which had injured Alexander and, to a lesser extent, Boldar. They lay unmoving, two large mounds of hacked and violated flesh, juices and blood seeping out upon the cold earthy ground. Despite the presence of the fearsome bodies, the air was a bit cleaner in here, the smoke from the burning worm having not yet penetrated into this chamber. The group pulled up in a corner of the room far from the corpses, more to assess their condition and the condition of their surroundings than because they relished the thought of dawdling here. Varis helped Alexander to a prone position while he once again removed his pack and began rummaging through it.
"What are you doing?" Thalaric asked impatiently.
Varis pulled a small leather case triumphantly from his backpack. "I need to clean and dress this wound before it festers," he said as he gave a small compressed packet of herbs to Alexander to chew on.
Boldar leaned on his axe. "Those were tombs." The others turned to look at him in confusion. "Back there, with that...thing, and the men. It was a burial room. I tripped on a tombstone."
"Are you sure?" Fyodor asked, wiping the tears from his face, too scared to hide them from the rest of the group.
The dwarf nodded, looked around in the darkness. "Perhaps we should keep our voices down."
"Fyodor," Thalaric began, dreading the reply, "why did you kill that man? What was that symbol?"
Fyodor turned pale and looked away from the others, head hung, although whether it was in shame or sorrow it was hard to tell. "It is the mark of the Black Prince," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. "He who aided the beast-men against the Traldar. He is mighty and he is evil."
"So, he is some sort of dark god?" Boldar asked, visibly nervous.
Fyodor nodded. "I never knew that people worshipped him..."
"Varis, are you hearing this?" the elf asked. The Vyalia knew little of human religious practices, but Thalaric had been among this group long enough to know that Varis was the one to consult regarding such matters.
With a skilled hand Varis finished tying the bandage around Alexander's leg. "The one of whom Fyodor speaks is known as Orcus in Thyatian." He took his patient's head in his hands and gazed quickly into each eye. "Demon-worship of any kind is an abomination and an affront to the True Immortals and must be wiped out." Varis smiled and patted Alexander on the back of the head. "How do you feel? Good. Spit out those herbs and stand up. We need to test that leg."
Alexander rose to his feet, unsteadily at first, but a huge grin broke out across his bearded face when he found that the wound, although undeniably still present, no longer throbbed with agony whenever he put his weight on it. He drew his sword and tried a few steps: a thrust, a defensive retreat, a lateral move followed by a slash. "Varis, I feel wonderful! What did you do?" he said quietly but excitedly.
Varis shrugged. "The wound itself was not that serious, but there was some sort of sticky ichor in it that was irritating your flesh. I merely cleaned it out, gave you some scopolis and fenugreek for the pain and for strength, and bound it up. You should be fine." Pleased with his success yet aware of the danger of their surroundings and the necessity of their quest, the philosopher turned from his friend and approached Boldar. "Now, let me take a look at yours." The dwarf protested under his breath for a moment, but at last consented when he saw that the rest of their small band was keeping watch, weapons drawn. Varis had put the gem down on the floor, and the pure light that it emitted was reassuring to Boldar.
"Aralic's scroll...it, uh, worked?" Fyodor asked in an awkward whisper.
Varis smiled as he tended to Boldar. "Chardastes worked, bless him," he replied. "We have a great quest to accomplish here; the Immortals have not deserted us." There was something strangely calm about the philosopher that confused his companions, something markedly different about the cocksure logician that they had become used to. As odd as this was, it was inspiring at the same time, filling the group with a quiet strength that brought them much needed confidence.
They stood there in silence, Varis dutifully trying to bind Boldar's wound and ease his pain while the others stood guard in a circle around the two, swords in hand. The sounds of the cavern intruded gently upon their consciousness. Water dripped from the walls, forming tiny rivulets on the dusty floor, miniscule tributaries to insignificant ponds. As he got used to the silence, Alexander heard other things, heard the scuttle and skitter of rats or other vermin. Once, just once, he thought he heard something else: a dark, reverb-drenched moan, so faint he immediately thought he was making it up, all the while knowing full well that he was not. He did not mention this to the others, fearing to intrude upon the sudden aura of strength and self-assurance that starting from Varis and now excepting himself had engulfed the party.
Within minutes Boldar was attended to, although Varis had a hard time convincing the dwarf to chew on the bitter herbs that brought comfort to the injured. All relatively free from pain, the group looked around at each other, ready to make their next move. "We have to find out what is happening here," Varis said. "Law and the Immortals demand it."
Thalaric, unconcerned with the theological basis of the philosopher's claim, nevertheless nodded his assent. "There is something here that is not right. Let us quickly find it and then never enter these caves and disturb the rest of the dead here again!" All around the circle lips were pulled tight in determination, and heads nodded with curt affirmations.
They chose a passage, opposite the direction from which had come. Aralic's gem, blessed with Immortal light, illumined their path. Varis held it aloft with confidence, his lips silent but his heart giving praise to the Fourteen, especially to Halav, for the great gift which he had worked through the Traladaran priest for the sake of the protection of those whom Red-Hair sojourned among so many years ago. We cannot fail,Varis thought, so long as our hearts remain humble in acknowledgment of our sin and our trust is in the guidance of the Immortals and in no other.
The passage that they had chosen was a short one, maybe thirty feet long, and it dumped them out in a cavernous room. As the group looked around in wary interest, they noted that this chamber seemed different than the others that they had encountered in this strange place, both down here among the worms and the demonists and above among the orcs. Like the others, this room obviously bore the marks of the stonecraft of men, those straight and clean lines impossible to nature and witnessed many times already by the party. However, the ceiling of this place, unlike the others, was unhewn, and it harboured dark, deep shadows that were slightly disconcerting.
The group entered the room, weapons at the ready, fanning out, probing the extent of their surroundings, but never leaving the circle of divine light that lit their path. The floor of this place was just as dirty and dusty with the debris of centuries as would be expected, but there was even more detritus here than they had seen before. Rocks, ranging in size from pebbles to hand-sized chunks to a single large boulder in one corner, filled the room.
Suddenly, Thalaric spoke. "Do you smell that?" The others stopped what they were doing and attended to the elf's question, taking deep, nasal, breaths. The usual smells presented themselves: sweat, mould, and stone were variably detected by the adventurers. However, there was something else, faint, barely detected, but nevertheless definitely present. To Fyodor it evoked strange memories, something that linked his home with the orc caves, parallel experiences separated by miles of terrain and years of life. Before he had time to explore these thoughts, it happened.
With a snarl, something emerged from behind the boulder and leapt at Thalaric. The others heard the bestial growl and turned in fear to the source of the sound in time to see whatever it was tackle the elf. The assault was too quick and too sudden for Thalaric to protect himself, and the beast struck him full in the chest, knocking him prone, his helmed head striking the cold floor with a metallic thud. It took only moments for Fyodor and Boldar to leap to his aid, striking the man-like thing with bone-crunching blows of axe and sword, driving it off of their compatriot.
They could see it better now, its loose, yellowed flesh hanging loosely to cracked bone and grey, maggoted sinew. Tattered rags, ripped and shredded beyond all recognition, were unable to conceal its distended, blackened pudenda. Bilious fluid dripped from its fangs as it snarled, its foul saliva dripping down jaws thin with gristle and streaking a chain worn about its neck, a thing of such beauty and clearly made with such attention to detail that its glittering of gold and chrysoprase shone perversely against the horror and brute ugliness of the beast's appearance. They couldn't help but be entranced by the strangely winking eye of the necklace as blood welled from the ghoul's wounds and ran thickly, as if under protest, falling with heavy drops to the ground.
Boldar and Fyodor did not wait to see how it would react and continued their assault, the Traladaran sweeping his sword in vicious strokes, the dwarf moving to flank and chopping low. Alexander took careful aim with his crossbow, but the ferocious assault on the part of the melee combatants proved to be too much for it. With one final howl, the beast-thing collapsed on the ground, twitched, and was still.
Varis was already by Thalaric's side. The elf pushed himself up, waving the philosopher away, shaking his head. He appeared not to have sustained any major injury from the beast's wicked claws, but the trauma the elf received when his head struck the stone floor worried the healer in the philosopher. "I'm fine," the elf said, a little shakily. "Just let me rest for a moment."
"What...is this?" Alexander hissed as he stood over the beast, grimacing horribly. He felt a bit silly whispering considering the noise that the fiend had made, but he couldn't help it. He entertained the thought of taking the superb necklace for only a moment before the thought of putting his hand next to such a thing made him shiver with disgust.
It was Boldar who understood first. "Impossible," he said weakly. "Only Kagyar can raise the dead..." His voice trailed away in disbelief.
Varis looked in awe, in horror and amazement, at the corpse. "The living dead," he said quietly. Almost unconsciously, his hand went to wrest the pendant bearing the Karameikan device from underneath his armour, letting the silver shield-shaped symbol rest freely against his armoured chest.
Fyodor stared at crumbled form, now recognising what he had smelled earlier: the stink of the slaughterhouse; the stink of death. "Halav is my King, Petra my Queen, Zirchev my Guide," he intoned solemnly before turning suddenly away.
"What is happening here..." Alexander trailed off, wiping his mouth with his off hand.
Varis stared into the divine light surrounding Aralic's gem, and found himself thinking of Palamar, the Odinite philosopher of far-off Zeaburg, in the Antalian Kingdom of Ostland. This great metaphysician and mystic wrote great treatises on the nature of Odin, that great paragon of Immortal wisdom beloved of the northmen and identified with the Thyatian Immortal Viuden by the sages. It was to the metaphor of light that Palamar would return in his writings again and again, comparing the wisdom of men to the radiance shed from its eternal source that is the heart of Odin. Varis had only the most minor exposure to this great thinker, as the priests of Kelvin, who tended towards a peculiar form of conservatism espoused by Patriarch Alfric and, to a lesser extent, the Baron-Patriarch Desmond Kelvin himself, had decreed that his works were too esoteric and symbolic to be of much pedagogical value to the seminarians. But at this moment he couldn't help but think of Palamar's strange words, and, with a miracle of the Immortals staring him right in the face, he felt that he had no choice but to beseech Viuden for wisdom at this crucial moment.
His reverie was disturbed by Boldar. "Look here," the dwarf said. While Fyodor, Alexander, and Thalaric were reacting with horror, disgust, and not a little amazement at the ghoulish figure that they had slain, and Varis was contemplating the meaning of this strange occurrence, Boldar had submerged his fear deep inside him and had turned his attention instead to examining the room, seeking to be distracted from the terrors of this place. Attracted by an angular shadow, he had discovered something in the corner of the odd chamber: the same type of door as he had discovered in the orc lair, partially hidden and machined with great skill.
The others gathered around him as he pushed the portal open ever so slightly. As before, it turned on near-silent hinges, and the light from Aralic's gem illumined a passage running parallel to the wall of the chamber that they stood in. From within this corridor, all of the companions felt a very palpable chill. It was not the chill of cold, of winter nights that Fyodor knew. Nor was it the dank chill of the deepest earth, such as Boldar remembered from Dengar, before he left his homeland in sorrow and shame. It was Varis who understood immediately what they were experiencing. This is the chill of death, he thought, the chill of Thanatos and Alphaks, the chill of demons and dark rites.
Their blades were held at the ready. Even Alexander had slung his crossbow over his shoulder and had drawn his slim-bladed sword. Varis understood that impulse; there was something strangely reassuring about the feel of his sceptre in his hand. He held the light aloft in his left hand and motioned for Boldar and Fyodor, by now the de facto vanguard of all of their assaults, to enter into the passage. Those two warriors, separated by race and place of birth but united in their bravery and resolve, took the first fateful steps into the corridor, faces grim and determined, Varis second in line, Thalaric and Alexander guarding the rear. The passage was long and slightly damper than the others, and was unlit save by the divine light pouring forth from Aralic's agate. But what they saw inside disturbed the group greatly.
For in the distance, a hundred feet, maybe more, they saw light, the light of lamp or torch. Varis acted quickly, returning the gem to its pouch, leaving it open but a little so that they could see each other. They looked around, each man to his neighbour, their faces lined with seriousness and gravity. It was only a matter of seconds before all gazes were directed at Alexander. The Karameikan's eyes bulged slightly as he recognised the nature of the commission being thrust upon him, but he soon nodded with understanding. He was the only one of the group that shunned the wearing of metal armour, and this fact, coupled with his light stride, made him perfectly suited for sneakily investigating the source of the light.
As Alexander slowly crept his way down the corridor, Varis held his breath in nervous anticipation. The light could mean only one thing: the presence of men. Could this place be some sort of forgotten temple, an ancient den of evil and demon-worship that had managed to escape detection for hundreds of years? Or was this a new incursion into Karameikan lands of a devil-cult that thrived in Alphatia or elsewhere? The best solution to this mystery eluded the philosopher, but all thoughts of conjecture left his mind as he watched Alexander approach his destination. He really does do this amazingly well, Varis thought as his friend slithered almost undetectably through the shadows. A quick look, so furtive it was almost not even noticed by the group, and he headed back to the party, his boots making remarkably little noise against the stone and dirt of the floor.
He put two fingers in the air. "What are they?" Thalaric mouthed near-silently.
Alexander shook his head, anxiety written all over his comely face. "There's a door," he said in a barely audible whisper. Despite the uncertainty, Fyodor felt good about their chances. With the five of them attacking, he felt that they should have little trouble overwhelming these dark cultists with a minimum of effort. Alexander removed his crossbow from his back once again, and fit a quarrel to it, cocking it smoothly and as quietly as possible, a soft click being the only sound that signalled the readiness of his deadly weapon. A few hand signals were exchanged, and a rudimentary plan was agreed upon: when he reached the room with the guards, Alexander would provide covering fire while the others charged, hoping to overcome them swiftly and with minimal noise. It was a simple plan and a good one, and the five brave companions said their prayers quickly and turned towards their destination.
Every step, every rustle of chain or clink of scabbard on shield stood the hair on the back of their necks on edge. The total lack of sound issuing forth from their destination did nothing to allay their fears; the almost grave-like silence began to stir the party's darkest imagination, and all five began to sweat in nervous anticipation. Slowly the feet, the yards, were eaten away, until their goal was almost within reach. Then, with a last look at the rest of his companions, Alexander leapt into action, darting into the room, pulling his crossbow up level, and firing at one of the men who guarded this chthonic lair.
He launched his missile swiftly, as soon as he got a good bead on the guard, and it was not until after he fired his weapon and his companions had entered the room that Alexander realised that something was horribly wrong. For now that he had a better look, he could see that the oil lamps that hung from the walls of this small room illumined not the expected sight of those worm-driving demonists already confronted by the party. Rather, the form of the guards revealed their true nature, a horrible anti-nature, which chilled the bones of the young Karameikan.
His companions also took only moments to size up the situation. Boldar cursed loudly, for he too recognised in horror that once again, their opponents were not made of living flesh but were rather the dead themselves, raised from their graves by some evil force. The dwarf approached warily, his heart pounding, axe and shield in hand, circling counter-clockwise around the room, seeking to flank these abominations. Fyodor and Thalaric moved directly to engage the monstrous things, their stern, expressionless faces belying the utter horror and disgust that they felt inside. With a mighty blow, Fyodor drove his father's sword through one of the animated corpses, parting its odorous grey-black flesh with ease. Thalaric likewise struck quickly and mercilessly with the swift, cutting blows he so favoured. The elf's blade excised large chunks of half-rotted flesh from the lumbering monstrosity, but the advance of the living corpse was not abated. Horribly, the zombie raised its tomb-dwelling hands and struck Thalaric hard, its bestial and filth-ridden claws rending through the elf's chain and gambeson, cutting into the living flesh of the elf's shoulder.
The undead that assailed Fyodor was speared upon his blade, but nevertheless maintained its advance, striking the Traladaran a heavy blow upon the side of his head. Ears ringing, helm askew, Fyodor still had the presence of mind to turn to the side, using all of the leverage that he could manage, clearing the way for Alexander's deadly crossbow. Fyodor heard only the familiar snicker of the bow before his friend put a bolt directly through the head of the zombie. With a low, horrible moan, the once-living abomination collapsed in a heap. "The head!" Fyodor shouted as he ripped his blade free of the second-dead corpse. "Strike to the head!" But Boldar had already found another way of defeating the creature: by cutting its legs out from under it. He was assisted in his grim butchery by Thalaric, who hacked away with malice. Soon, this risen corpse too lay dispelled upon the ground, horribly disfigured and dismembered.
Fyodor righted his helm upon his head and took quick stock of the situation. One of the undead's grime-encrusted talons had cut the side of his neck, and he could feel the blood running down it, to be sopped up by his gambeson and to stain his armour. The wound was not that deep, so he did not pay it much mind. His companions seemed unhurt, with Thalaric alone being the recipient of some damage. He had only a moment to take stock of their situation before the door that the zombies were guarding swung open and a horrible figure strode confidently into the soft glow of the wall-mounted lanterns.
When he retold the chronicle of his adventures later on in life, Fyodor always paused at this point in the tale, at a loss to explain the feeling of dread that welled up inside him at the sight of what walked through that door. In light of the varieties of abnormal creatures that he and his companions had confronted in these deep chambers where even the orcs must have feared to tread, the figure that faced them now seemed quite mundane: it was merely a man. Both his full suit of plated chain and the large shield that he carried were enamelled and embossed with strange shapes that seemed to move in the lamplight. In his other hand, the tall man carried a wicked, flanged mace, and he smiled cruelly as he lifted it high.
What was so terrifying about this figure could not be traced back to one particular thing, but was rather a combination of many factors, such as the horrid war-mace he bore aloft, the impious gleam in his piercingly green eyes, and the unholy symbol, the head of a goat bearing the horns of a ram, that hung from an iron chain around his neck. All of the companions felt a wave of terror and nausea pass over them as they stared at him. Aralic's words, his whispered, terrified description, came unbidden to the minds of the adventurers as they sought to size up this strangely horrible figure.
But before Fyodor- who had reached down deep inside himself to pluck every ounce of hatred and religious duty from the depths of his spirit to combat his raw terror- could make an offensive move, Varis, heart burning with righteous fury, leapt to the attack. Sceptre and shield in hand, the philosopher moved with a speed that surprised his companions, heading straight for the necromantic cultist. "Diulanna!" Varis shouted in his mad rush, his companions moving swiftly to follow his lead, seeking to surround this dark figure and subdue him quickly with force of numbers.
The battle cry of the young Karameikan, an invocation of the Patroness of Will, turned into a cry of surprise. The ground beneath him suddenly collapsed as he stepped upon a cleverly hidden pit trap. His companions heard his shout, the sound of metal and flesh striking stone, and then silence. However, it was too late to stop their rush to tend to their friend, and the dark priest of the dark god who ought not be named began to strike with precision and hatred, smiling wickedly as he caught Fyodor on his shield, driving him straight back with the force of his blow. The names of many Immortals were uttered then, as the troop of heroes attacked with fearful desperation, knowing that their quest had come to its ultimate goal, and that there was absolutely no turning back.
* * *
Varis opened his eyes. He sat in a room that he knew well: Father Cesarius' inner chambers in Kelvin. They were attached to the main seminary building by a covered walkway that crossed a busy downtown street three stories above the ground. The old priest, although thoroughly Karameikan in most of his attitudes, maintained a typically Thyatian love of fine fabrics, and his study was awash in velvets of dark reds and blues, intricately detailed Kerendan silks and Glantrian cloths. A particularly rich pair of crimson drapes covered the windows, bathing the room in heavy light.
The philosopher himself was seated on a luxurious Darokinian sofa made of fine woods and the most comfortable cushioning. Before the couch stood an equally beautiful coffee table, also of Darokinian or possibly elvish craftsmanship, upon which was a bubbling samovar of coffee. It smelt delicious, but Varis couldn't pause to savour the odour, or to appreciate the understated yet elegant design of the pot, for his eyes were fixed on the figure sitting across from him.
It was him, the demon-worshipper, he whose very presence had struck such dread into the hearts of the companions in the strange corridors of a forgotten tomb in the Wufwolde Hills. He had exchanged his plated chain for the grey formal gown of a Karameikan priest, the sceptre and sun-and-moon of the church's device worked onto the chest of the garment with crimson thread. He sat there, legs crossed, staring at Varis with his cold green eyes, his long dark black hair falling in an uneasy part over his sharp cheekbones and pallid skin.
"Petrides," Varis whispered, not knowing how he knew the man's name.
"Yes," the man answered. "It's so good to finally meet you. May I offer you some coffee?"
Varis stared at him, not batting an eye. What am I doing here? What is happening to me?
Petrides sighed. "I've gone to quite a lot of trouble to get it, you know. This is fresh from Tel Akbir." So saying, he poured himself a cup and sat back in his chair.
"You're not real," Varis said slowly. "This isn't real."
"It's not?" Petrides took a careful sip of his beverage and sighed deeply. "Ah, those Alasiyan traders sure grow a good bean, eh Varis?" He tossed back his hair and laughed, quietly but intensely.
His eyes never left Varis' face, and they never lost their air of concentration for a moment. What do his eyes remind me of? the philosopher thought to himself. Ah, yes...Thalaric's eyes...fey eyes...unnatural eyes...
* * *
Boldar struck out with a hard diagonal slash but his opponent was too quick for him. His shield swung quickly to deflect the blow, and not even the dwarf's prodigious strength was sufficient to destabilise the dark warrior. Instead, with a smooth sideways motion, he skipped out of range of Boldar's assault, striking out with his maul, sending Thalaric reeling when the huge iron head made contact with the elf's leather-wrapped shield, driving him back. The black-haired warrior was moving in a crab-like fashion to his right, forcing the companions to continually move in response. The mace of the evil cultist flashed so menacingly, and his defensive moves were so intuitive and seemingly faster than the party could think, that they were having an exceptionally difficult time making any progress in the melee.
Time and again, the companions narrowly avoided having their skulls cracked by the whirling of their opponent's great weapon, and though they outnumbered him four to one, the dark figure was clearly controlling the pace of the fight. Alexander circled warily outside of melee range, trying to both reload his crossbow and get in a look at Varis.
Suddenly, and without forethought or signal, both Fyodor and Boldar attacked simultaneously, and as the tall warrior fought them off, Alexander took his eyes off of the swirling melee for a moment to peer into the pit. It was difficult to see in the insufficient lantern-light, but he could make out the outline of his friend, crumbled and unmoving on the floor of the hollow at what Alexander would estimate was about ten feet down. He was allowed but a glance, as the circular dance of combat forced him to move away, clear of the flashing blades of his compatriots.
Alexander put down his bow and slipped his blade from his scabbard, the sight of Varis making him unwilling to take the time to reload at this crucial moment, filling him with the desire to close and engage the ferocious warrior. There is something so familiar about this...So magical, so right... Alexander thought to himself as he shifted his stance, looking for the split-second opening that would allow him to strike in the Darokinian style taught by his father's master-at-arms. True mastery of this deadly art required dedication to the thin, almost stick-like, Darokinian blade and a great deal more patience than Alexander Kantpatcalites possessed, but his fundamentals were sound and his hybrid style had proved to be quite effective against the orcs and against Fyodor in gentle sparring. He could only hope that he would be able to contribute in this conflict as well.
Finally, Fyodor drew the first blood. As the cultist swung his mace to deflect a thrust from the elf, the young Traladaran leapt at the opening and struck at his unprotected head. As it was, his reach was not sufficient to slice the man's nose from his face, but his father's blade nevertheless struck across his opponent's breastplate and the rerebrace on his right arm, deeply scoring the metal and slashing through the chain on the interior of his arm.
He howled with pain and turned to Fyodor, which allowed Thalaric to dart in again, though his arm was almost numb with shock, and drive the point of his sword shallowly into his side, which the necromancer, in failing to bring his shield in tightly in his haste to confront Fyodor, left uncharacteristically open. The teeth of the demonist flashed as he speedily swung his terrible maul in a broad arc, catching the lunging elf full on the left shoulder, before the wicked flanged head of the weapon glanced hard off the elf's helm, knocking him to the ground with an impressive display of strength. As this happened, those left standing-Fyodor, Alexander, and Boldar-noticed with terror that the iron pendant bearing the image of the Master of the Dead flashed, its eyes, previously unseen to the companions, glinting with the faintest trace of chrysoprase.
* * *
"What do you think of my gown?" Petrides asked, raising his arms and admiring the fabric, mockingly so to Varis' eye. "You Karameikans have such a taste for the dramatic."
"You blaspheme the True Immortals by wearing that vestment," Varis replied coldly. Where am I? How is this possible?
Petrides laughed at that, taking another sip of coffee. "The True Immortals? And how is it that you have determined which are true and which are false?"
Varis did his best to sneer derisively, much in the way that he was used to when arguing what he knew to be the weaker position in a debate. Father Cesarius had often scolded him for this habit, but it was one that he found to be very difficult to break. In formal situations Varis could obey all of the rules of etiquette and formal conduct, written and unwritten, but now...If this is a phantasy, why does it all seem so real? "There are only fourteen of the Light who have made credible appearances to us mortals, only fourteen whose presence was directly felt in history, only fourteen whose precepts and teachings conform to reason...that is how we know. And those that you worship, he that you follow in your sickness and your delusion, is just a temporary perversion of the world-unity, a momentary glimpse of disorder and chaos, a..."
"Enough! Enough!" Petrides laughed again. "Please, spare me, do not start quoting from Beda or that tired old bore Olliver Jowett or I shall lose my mind. I am impressed with you, my friend...'precepts and teachings conform to reason'...how droll.
"Tell me then, philosopher, why is it that you worship Vanya, who in Thyatis is invoked every time the Emperor decides that it is divinely ordained for the Empire to spread her cancerous legions to bring yet another area of the world to the sword, yet Thanatos, Death Himself, you dismiss as anathema, as a 'temporary perversion'? You Karameikans ruthlessly colonise Traladara, where your great God and Saviour Halav walked the earth, yet Petra and Zirchev, wonder-working Immortals worshipped by the Traladaran peoples themselves you do not even acknowledge. In fact, His Eminence Alfric Oderbry, whom the good Baron Kelvin supports and, if the Immortals will it, will be Patriarch of Specularum once Jowett has entered the Light, has even gone so far as to call the Traladarans a race of demonolaters who must be forcibly converted and subjected to the rigidities of Thyatian- pardon me- Karameikan law."
Varis' interlocutor sneered then back at him, a wicked, incisive sneer that chilled the philosopher as he struggled for answers even as he struggled to understand his predicament, his surroundings. Have I died? Is this some sort of Immortal test of the purity of my spirit? "You misunderstand Patriarch Alfric," Varis blustered in reply, "He is speaking only about those Traladarans who deny the legitimacy of the state. And as for Vanya, it is the Old Thyatians who have misinterpreted what the goddess, blessed be she, had been trying to convey to us mortals; namely, that it is by the conquest of the soul through self-discipline and moderation that we shall be purified and made to enjoy Immortal favour, not through force of arms and literal conquest. The rejection of the spiritual nature of the Immortals' teachings is what defines Old Thyatis, and it is the acceptance of these teachings that constitutes our identity as Karameikos, as New Thyatis." So far, so good. Viuden! Show me the Light!
"Odd, is it not, that all of a sudden you people understand what the goddess 'really' meant all along." Petrides chuckled again. "Do you not find it suspicious that Stefan Karameikos, when it was politically expedient to do so, threw his support behind this fledgling movement, this cultic reformation? Do you think he is any less inclined to typical Thyatian attitudes and morals than the Emperor himself?"
"But that's not the way it happened," Varis protested angrily. "The Duke supported Jowett and the reforming patriarchs because he recognised that Thyatis was corrupt and turning from the Immortals and their beneficent wisdom."
Petrides leaned forward suddenly, his voice rising in anger. "He supported Jowett and the reforming patriarchs because he realised that with their support and the support of the nobles and military officers who were already persuaded by their staid and solemn teachings on reason and ritualistic purity, he could colonise Traladara and rule it with theocratic authority. In turn, the patriarchs, whom you revere so highly, recognised that this was an opportunity to break away from the imperial bureaucracy and actually have a hand in ruling for once, so that they too could acquire wealth, power, and as many women and young boys as they could drag kicking and screaming to their polluted beds, just as your sick Emperors have since the beginning." Petrides smirked, although his piercing green eyes, as before, betrayed not a hint of emotion. "Where in Thyatis could such insufferable louts as Desmond Kelvin and Sherlane Halaran rule territories as both Patriarch and Baron? Pretending that 'Reason,' or some notion of cosmic Law that you philosophers have created for yourselves to justify your own greed and sense of insecurity had anything to do with this church, this nation, or these gods that you worship so piously is quite simply a fraudulent lie."
And Varis felt himself falling into those strange green eyes. Fey eyes...unnatural eyes...